Monday, 15 June 2015

A Tale of Two Rivers - USA 2015

I've never sugar coated my experiences through the medium of this blog and I'm going to be pretty upfront about my experience of fishing the famous Beaverhead River. I fished it for two days and left with mixed feelings.

Let's start with what was good. It's the Beaverhead. That in itself offered a great deal of pleasure. This was after all Al Troth's stomping ground and home water for much of his life and I did my best to honour him by catching a trout from its waters on his peerless Elk Hair Caddis. Sadly it wasn't to be. The trout of the Beaverhead are largely known to be reluctant to rise to dry flies.

I caught five brown trout and two large whitefish. That's always a good thing, but four of the trout were caught in a twenty minute blitz meaning a long time passed between the sole remaining catch.

It's also much smaller than the Missouri and Madison, the two other 'big name' rivers I fished immediately prior to arriving at Dillon. That's a good thing because I felt more at home the minute I first saw the river. There's also one of the friendliest fly shops I've been to, in Dillon, in Tim Tollet's Frontier Anglers. It's nice to have a friendly place to call in when you need to pick up some flies and advice. Tim walked around barefoot the first time I visited, a lack of pretension which makes one feel completely at ease.

OK, so the not so good things: there isn't much room for both boats and wading fishermen. At least on the Missouri (my first experience of a flotilla of boats drifting by when fishing) the river was big enough for the boats to give me a wide steer, which they are supposed to do - the wading angler has right of way. You can cast across the Beaverhead in most places which means the boats pass right under your nose. You're forced to stop casting and strip in line each time to let a boat pass as it's mostly impossible to continue fishing as a boat approaches. This is distracting. Also, it's courteous to greet and sometimes have a conversation. Not that I'm unfriendly or a complete recluse but it can be distracting when the boats pass by in a steady procession. One boat also fished right through the pool I was already fishing. I could have reached out and plucked the offending angler's bobber indicator right off the water, that's how close it passed by me. I thought this was rude.

Secondly, the river flows parallel to a major interstate highway, a secondary road and a freight train line. I never felt completely 'away from reality' when fishing but this is only a minor gripe. After all, another great river I know of and have fished, the Smalblaar in South Africa, has a highway next to it. But what such convenient road access does mean is that fishing numbers are high and a great deal were spin fishermen who seemed to have no qualm in jumping in the water just in front of me. I'd hear their pick up trucks skidding to a halt on gravel, and they'd jump out clutching their stubby little rods already made up, charge down to the river's edge, and try hit the opposite bank with their shiny spinners. They all seemed to be in a hurry. I'd shake my head at the rudeness and lack of finesse but at the end of the day what can you do when you've steadily been approaching the pool or spot they're now fishing, having watched fish move about virtually where they're now standing? Perhaps with more time I may have discovered quieter sections of the river but I didn't feel motivated to do so.

Many people speak highly of this river, indeed some have called it the greatest river in the West, so clearly one man's meat is another man's poison. Don't let me put you off trying it - you may love it.

I camped right beneath the dam wall - the start of the Beaverhead's best water
Instead I looked at my map book and noticed two blue lines separated by a mountain ridge which seemed to run longer on the page than the average two feet to a metre-wide willow-choked creek does. My guidebook failed to mention them which I thought was pretty alluring. I realised it could be a pretty hit or miss affair but I took a chance on them. The first creek was just big enough to fish but access was a problem and right near where I could have gained access from a bridge a moose sat in the shade of the willows. I don't know the first thing about moose except that they are large animals. They could be timid and harmless for all I know but I wasn't about to find out if they are mean sons of bitches. So I pushed on, taking the gravel road over the mountains through stunningly remote scenery where I didn't see another car for three hours right until the time I decided I needed to pee and that it wasn't necessary to park the car off the single track road. Result? Not one but two cars suddenly appeared out of nowhere, hooting, me trying to hurry and finish while they backed up and waited and just a little embarrassment on my part.

There's a moose hidden under the willows if you look close enough

After three hours of enjoyable driving I came into the next valley at the river's headwaters and even where it is tiniest I knew I was onto a winner. The river had some size to it and looked thoroughly inviting, increasingly so as I drove down the valley. I parked where the river first met the road and within minutes, just as heavy grey clouds started to show and a distant thunder heard, I caught a little rainbow.

I entered into private land where the river meandered through pastures and, always ensuring that I stayed within the high water line, caught a mix of rainbows and cutthroats at regular intervals. I had caught eight before the rain set in and thunder claps sounded above my head. I followed the river channel back to my car and drove down river through a gorge which looked equally inviting but for the storm. I was happy to call it a day and find a campsite when the rain lightened and the river emerged from the gorge into a spring creek section of clear water flowing over lush weeds and fine gravel. I spied a rise from the car so I pulled up and watched the water for a while. Another rise, then another and another. I donned my rain coat and went fishing!

The start of the gorge section

This section of the river was a magical place. It was hemmed in by mountains and fields of wild yellow flowers and better yet there was no sign of another fisherman. I had the entire river to myself. A car would drive along the gravel road once an hour at most. As I began to catch a pleasing mix of rainbows, browns and cutthroats - all on dry fly and the match for size of the trout I caught from the Beaverhead - I began to wonder why this place was left alone when the Beaverhead was pounded. The three hour drive to get there was me taking the long way round into the valley - the quick route is a short drive from the interstate, so access is not the problem. I eventually decided I didn't care why, that in this day and age of overfishing and the majority settling for what's served up to them on a plate there needs to be places like this - rewards for the few willing to take a gamble on the unknown and perhaps miss out on a guaranteed but crowded bet. The effect was intoxicating. I put this down as one of my best days of fishing ever. That's no small feat. My only regret is that my camera battery died and I didn't get to take as many photos as I wanted.

Montana is full of little creeks such as this, mostly left alone while the crowds float and flog the banks of the famous names. I decided to make a concerted effort to find more of these hidden little gems.


  1. Justin.

    Stunning fish and a nice write up. Would be nice to hear from you on my blog sometime. I've been following your for a long time buddy.

    Kind Regards.

    1. Hi Richard. Thanks for the compliment. As you know I'm very partial to small streams and brown trout so I cannot help but find your blog interesting. I'm an avid reader but lousy commenter.